Are Tower Controllers an Endangered Species?

By Robert Mark on May 31st, 2009

Jetwhine tower Years ago in another life, I was a VFR tower controller at a number of then really busy airports, Chicago Palwaukee (now Chicago Executive), Chicago DuPage, Chicago Meigs and Miami Opa-Locka.

As a pilot and a newly minted flight instructor, I always enjoyed the chance to chat with student and private pilots who would appear at the base of the tower and ask to come up for a tower tour. We’d talk about the local airport and how they we might all work better together for a faster, safer operation.

Since 9/11, it is much more difficult to visit airport control towers … not impossible, but certainly much tougher.

Now, a move to transform VFR towers into remotely operated ATC facilities might make it even less likely pilots will be visiting tower cabs at their local airport. Indeed, local air traffic controllers could well go the way of the flight engineer … nice to have, but not necessary.

The goal is – wait for it – a cost-saving move. First there was the move to contract out low traffic-count facilities. Now they want to run them by remote control.

The trick that makes it all possible involves remote TV cameras that would give controllers in a central facility a chance to view airport operations from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. If you only need a place to mount TV cameras, you also don’t need to build costly air traffic control towers.

The first test took place this year in Sweden where a Coast Guard aircraft was cleared to land at an airport from a facility 100 km away using remote vision. Aspen Airport is another place where remote cameras might soon be used to supplement what controllers can see out the window.

I remember when piloting an aircraft from a remote location was simply a past time for the people who built airplanes in their basements. Now Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) represent a significant direction in the future of aircraft. How much longer before NextGen begins completely automating ATC?

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4 Responses to “Are Tower Controllers an Endangered Species?”

  1. Stephen Says:

    I always like to visit the Tower Cab. Every student pilot should be required to do so. If they decide to automate ATC facilities, then who in the heck is going to clear me for an intersection take-off in a Helio Courier??

    They better not…

  2. Local ATC: An endangered species? | Golf Hotel Whiskey Says:

    […] posed an interesting question on Jetwhine when he asked if local air traffic controllers are an endangered species. He points back to a time when pilots and flight instructors such as himself and his students could […]

  3. Paul Cox Says:

    I think it’s a lot more practical to simply close these towers than this whole “remote control” business. The only money they’ll truly save is on the physical assets of the tower; they’ll still have automation costs, remoting the radio lines costs, etc.

    As far as doing away with controllers completely… not going to happen, not for at least a generation and probably more.

    Look at it this way: They’ve tested aircraft that can taxi, depart, fly enroute, land, and taxi all on their own- not even with a remote UAV type of operator. The technology is there, although still not ready to go live all the time. And even if it were, would anyone seriously jump onto automated aircraft?

    But when it comes to ATC, they haven’t even TESTED anything that completely automates the process.

    Autoland is used in low visibility conditions at times by pilots. Airplanes are being “flown” by computers all over the world. Yet for ATC, the state-of-the-art at enroute centers in the United States is URET, and believe me, that automation tool is NOT foolproof. We regularly see bad alerts on non-existent traffic… and see it miss collision courses between aircraft that ARE going to get too close.

    What this “remote tower” thing really comes from is people in aviation, both within and outside of the FAA or ATC-providing services, that think those smaller towers represent too much in the way of costs.

    They’re the same people who think that pilots cost too much (and hence have created a pay structure where new regional right-seaters are making less than 20 grand a year) and taxes are too high (hence they’re pushing to shift taxation away from their carriers onto other folks) and that actually hauling baggage costs too much (hence fees for every bag) and so forth and so on.

    Same mentality, same people. If we want to have the same situation as Colgan Air, sure, let’s remote out and contract out and do away with controllers as much as we can.

  4. GNAStech Says:

    Interesting. If I may ask, where did you read about this possibility? I’m a GNAS specialist and I haven’t even heard rumors about this. If it is true, the actual job of aircraft separation and clearance delivery aside, I can see where the FAA (or whomever is proposing this) may actually be building a case for privatizing all ATC and absolving itself of liability. With airports losing positive control, how many aircraft collisions deaths will be considered acceptable? It makes me wonder why the FAA mandates we do risk assessment at all.

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